It’s a commonly quoted statistic that in the Western world, on average one in four women fall victim to domestic violence in their lifetime with an average of two women killed each week by a current or former male partner…
However, following detailed and extensive research into inter-personal violence in the UK by the Home Office in 2004, it was discovered that such violence is actually more widespread, affecting approximately one third of the population at some time in their lives.
The Home Office Research Study found that furthermore, one in twenty women have experienced serious sexual assault, and one in five women and one in ten men have been victims of repeated instances of domestic violence in their lifetime.
In nations like the UK and the USA there are support groups in place for victims of domestic violence, there are crisis telephone lines and safe houses, the problem is openly discussed in society and despite the fact that not enough can ever be done to protect the victims of this silent crime, people do actively try to help.
For expatriates, living away from home, away from family and friends, away from support groups and networks of potential assistance, domestic violence can increase, intensify and get completely out of control. Quite often this is the reason why the expatriate family in question has moved abroad – to ‘allow’ the abuser to take complete and utter control of their victim, so that their power and influence is unquestioned and unrestrained.
It’s well known that the abuser will begin to erode their victim’s chain of support from day one. They will criticise their victim’s friends and family for example, highlighting any character or behavioural traits they disapprove of and encouraging their victim to break contact. They will slowly but surely ensure their victim becomes cut off from their family, alienated from their friends and isolated from the rest of the world – first emotionally and then later financially.
Parties outside an abusive relationship always question how things deteriorate to the point at which a formerly independent minded individual becomes wholly dependent on their abusive partner. How the victim becomes unable to reach out and ask for help and find themselves cut off from close familial ties and bound to the relationship because they have no money of their own. How the victim’s confidence is totally destroyed and they are potentially without even travel or personal documentation.
The answer is that the abuser is in control and in a position of power from day one because they know what they are doing. The victim on the other hand is manipulated without their knowledge from the start – the lucky ones realise it and get away in time. But the window of opportunity for escape is very narrow. What the victim would once have seen as completely unreasonable and bizarre behaviour becomes the norm for them. They adapt, cover up, lie and become unwillingly complicit in the entire charade of their ‘loving’ relationship.
And what better way to enhance this untenable situation and intensify the extreme isolation than to move your victim overseas – well away from the prying eyes of concerned neighbours, worried friends and frantic family?
No study has ever been undertaken into the level of domestic or inter-personal violence that exists in expatriate communities – but as an external expat observer, I can state categorically that domestic violence is rife within expat communities the world over, and it remains one of the dirtiest little secrets of the ‘wonderful’ expatriate lifestyle.
Once the abuser has removed their victim’s potential access to safety and assistance by moving them abroad, they can take their abuse to the next level and assume complete control in their relationships. It’s common for passports and travel documentation to be ‘lost,’ hidden or simply destroyed. New bank accounts and financial arrangements can be made solely in the name of the abuser. Any contact made with neighbours, colleagues or potential friends will be managed, manipulated, restricted or simply banned, and the abused individual’s life is effectively over at that point.
A former victim of 10 years of abuse was willing to share her experience with me and it is not only disturbing to hear one story but extremely distressing that she is by no means an isolated case.
Here is what she told me:
“When I was finally completely trapped abroad after multiple moves over many years I was still unaware of the fact that I was in an abusive relationship, the bizarre behaviour becomes the norm and you ‘accept’ that you’re the instigator of their violent behaviour because you just cannot behave as you should. You are repeatedly told this ‘truth’ and to disbelieve it would be to question every single element of your relationship, and that just doesn’t happen.
I still harboured a massive longing for escape though, because I was so unhappy and felt so unloved – but at the same time, part of me was scared to leave. I believed I loved my partner, and if I left him he would have nothing. I am quite sure many other expatriate victims of domestic violence feel equally conflicted. Others are probably simply too terrified to even dream of escape, and yet more victims feel there is simply no way out for them.
Hope is the last thing you lose – and if you suspect that a friend, neighbour or fellow expat is a victim within an abusive relationship, the one thing you can reach out and offer them is the hope they so desperately need. It’s highly unlikely a direct declaration of your concerns will help in any way – in fact, on the contrary, if you try and get involved you may make things worse for the affected individual. But by making it clear that you’re around, you’re not going anywhere, you do not question the victim’s behaviour and you will offer any help you can in any way you can, you could be the lifeline needed for the victim to get away.
For me, I met an exceptionally intuitive woman who supported me without question – and to whom I never had to explain ‘why.’ With her quietly offering unquestioning support subtly from the sidelines and even seeming to offer my abusive partner kindness and support because he had ‘such an errant, difficult and trying partner,’ I was able to get away.
I had to build a reserve of mental and emotional strength first however – and that is actually the hardest thing to build. You have to believe you are worth better, that you can get away, that you can live alone if needs be, and that you can have a better life than the one you’re leading. However, because your self-confidence has been destroyed, you need help to reach this point of mental strength before you can move forward.
I literally read self-help books – the sort that tell you how you can change your life by changing the way you think. They were enough of a catalyst for me to go through with the escape when it came down to it. I didn’t plan to leave, I didn’t have a nest egg squirreled away as most organisations set up to support victims of domestic violence will recommend. I didn’t have my passport to hand and I didn’t have anywhere to run. However, I still managed it because one day it got to the point where I couldn’t take any more and I knew I would either die or escape. Fortunately with the love and support of a best friend I managed to get away”.
In researching for this article I contacted the US Department of State to see if there is any way American victims of domestic violence living abroad will be given special assistance by consulates and embassies overseas. I wanted to know if they would be able to facilitate travel or enable victims and their children to get travel documentation for example. Unfortunately my attempts at communication have been left unanswered – and this doesn’t bode well for anyone who believes that their government will assist them.
However, at least it’s better to know this in advance. The last thing you need if you’re vulnerable is a support mechanism that crumbles when you need to lean upon it.
If you are trapped abroad there are practical steps you can take to get out of the untenable position you’ve been placed in. The first thing you need to know is that it is categorically not your fault. Your abuser has deep rooted issues that cause them to behave as they do – you are their victim, and if it wasn’t you, it would have been someone else. So do not blame yourself. You can spend time later reflecting on how you found yourself in the position you are in – but now is the time to plan and enable your escape.
If you are in the position where you have no money then yes, if it is at all possible, squirrel some away whenever you can. But be careful that your partner doesn’t find out. If you have someone you can truly trust, perhaps they can look after the money for you…however, I would never let having no money stop you from escaping. After all, freedom is priceless – and once you are free to live as you want and think and do as you please you will find ways to bring in an income and build a better life.
If you have no travel documentation then your position is of course far harder. However, try and get to the point where you at least have some proof of identification – a driving license for example, or the visa you need to live abroad in your current country. Perhaps it’s the case that you can persuade your partner that you need to hold your own driving license, health insurance card, bank card or ID card simply in case you are ever stopped by the local police and asked who you are.
Meanwhile, you have to believe you have the strength to stand up to your abuser and say ‘no’ – even if you are never placed in this position and you escape without them seeing you. You need to believe in your heart that enough is enough and you do not deserve this. Otherwise when it comes down to it you will not have the mental strength you need to leave.
If you believe someone in your community is being abused there is only so much you can do. Sure, you can offer them a place to stay, a secure house to live in whilst they find their feet – but really what they need is unquestioning understanding. Don’t ask yourself how they ended up like that. Don’t start to believe that perhaps they are happy and that they maybe even ‘deserve’ some of the abuse metered out to them.
Be there – 24 hours a day if needs be – and offer emotional support if you can offer nothing else. Do not appear cold or indifferent or even angry and negative towards the abusive partner otherwise they will do everything they can to prevent you ever getting near their victim. You may have to play along with their displays of having a ‘normal’ relationship in order to support the victim.
You may believe that the local police should intervene and help in some way, but it’s unlikely the victim of the abuse will ever press charges or even report abuse. What’s more, police even in the UK and USA are very unwilling to get involved with cases of domestic violence.
Perhaps you can contact the local embassy or consulate on behalf of a suspected victim and find out if there are any local support mechanisms in place. If there are, maybe you can verbally pass this information along to the abused individual – or somehow make it known within the local community. If you have a local newspaper maybe they would publish the simple facts in an article that you can just hope any abused individuals will see.
Finally, there follows a list of websites, phone numbers and organisations that may be able to help – however, if you are a victim of inter-personal violence be careful about looking up these resources online at home as your surfing and email history could be, and probably is being, tracked. Good luck.
The American Overseas Domestic Violence Crisis Center serves as a lifeline to Americans exposed to domestic violence anywhere in the world. Their US hotline number (866) 879-6636 (866-USWOMEN) is internationally toll free, so victims can contact the Crisis Line directly 24/7 from anywhere. They also have live chat and an email address.
Information on domestic violence, with personal safety plans.
Lists help agencies for 191 countries.
The Healing Club
Founded in 1995, the Healing Club is an online support community for domestic violence victims, survivors, and others who want to take part in the “healing” process or know someone who has been touched by domestic violence. The Healing Club is about healing and rebuilding.
WAVE is a network of European women’s non-governmental organisations working in the field of combating violence against women and children. They have contacts of over 4,000 women’s help organizations in the 47 countries of Europe, as well as information on research, international documents and the legal situation in each country.
Women’s Aid (UK)
A survivors’ handbook plus other useful information about domestic violence.
The above resources were originally listed with the article Expat Women: Domestic Violence Abroad and have been reproduced with their permission.
About the author: Susan Beverley is a writer and editor for Escape From America Magazine and also writes for and maintains Expat Daily News – the expat news blog for EscapeArtist.com. She traveled extensively before becoming an expat herself having found a place to call home in South America where she has lived since 2005. She understands the concerns, needs and difficulties that expats face from first-hand experience and is dedicated to supporting and encouraging anyone who is looking for a new nation to call home.